2018 marked the 25th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival, officially making CUFF the longest running underground film festival in the world. This year’s festival included over 80 short films from all over the world, as well as more than a dozen features during the festival’s main run at the Logan Theater from June 6th through 10th. As part of the 25th anniversary celebration, CUFF also presented screenings of Jon Moritsugu’s MOD FUCK EXPLOSION at the Music Box Theatre in May and Jon Waters’s HAIRSPRAY at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on June 5th. To say that this festival has come a long way since its humble beginnings would be a huge understatement–CUFF has grown to become one of the most important and well-regarded festivals in Chicago. Daily Grindhouse takes a look at some of the feature highlights of this year’s festival:
INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT: THE STORY OF WAX TRAX! RECORDS (USA, dir. Julia Nash)
Wax Trax! Records was a hugely influential independent record label in the late 80s and early 90s, and while it was synonymous with Chicago–where the label also ran a destination record store of the same name–its story began long before the company released their first single. INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT traces the history of Wax Trax! back to Denver in the 1970s, where label founders Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher met and opened the first incarnation of the record shop and helped foster the city’s burgeoning punk scene. The documentary, directed by Jim Nash’s daughter Julia, includes interviews with countless artists whose work was released and championed by the label. It’s clear that Nash and Flesher had a deep passion for music and perhaps an overly generous spirit toward their label’s artists, an approach that helped make the label both successful and unsustainable. The artist interviews are fantastic and informative, but also poignant. Nash and Flesher, proudly gay and out in the 70s in a place where that was an alien concept, are fondly remembered by artists and family alike. Despite ending with the label retrospective held at the Metro in 2011–which reunited a number of artists and fans for the first time in many years–INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT is something of a cautionary tale of business as much as it is a portrait of the groundbreaking people who built a massively influential label out of nothing but their love of music and community.
SAVAGE YOUTH (USA, dir. Michael Curtis Johnson)
Aspiring rapper Jason (Will Britain) is trying to dig deeper with his lyrics than his goofy partners Hyde (J. Michael Trautmann) and Lucas (Sasha Feldman), but they all spend more time sitting around getting high and talking about recording than doing anything about it. He crosses paths with Elena (Grace Victoria Cox) when her friend Stephanie (Chloe Levine) hooks up with Hyde, and quickly finds himself in a close relationship he’s not emotionally equipped to deal with. Meanwhile Stephanie is making nice with rookie drug dealer Gabe (Tequan Richmond), and during a particularly strained period between Elena and Jason, Elena finds herself drawn to Gabe. SAVAGE YOUTH, shot in and around Joliet, is based on a true story that took place there. Writer/director Michael Curtis Johnson took an unusual approach to telling the story, eschewing “true crime” or documentary for an overtly dramatic fictional retelling. The performances are fantastic, especially Cox and Richmond, and the film feels deceptively (if lyrically) formless until it gives way to a genuinely shocking sense of inevitability as it draws closer to its tragic finale.
DREAM JOURNAL, MAY 2016-FEBRUARY 2017 (Canada, dir. Jon Rafman)
Artist Jon Rafman has created a number of CG animated pieces over the years, including an ongoing series of “Dream Journals.” The latest of these covers a span from 2016 to 2017, presented as a series of modular vignettes that can be screened in varying lengths. The version that played CUFF ran about 50 minutes, which is deceptively short given how much surreal insanity is on display here. Using 3D animation software frequently used for fetish pornography videos, Rafman reproduces scenes from dreams. The results are often as hilarious as they are disturbing, with recurring characters and motifs but little else to establish a sense of narrative. DREAM JOURNAL (2017) is loosely structured around the travels of a young girl and a “typical millennial” (according to the program notes) through a series of grotesque dream-worlds. Scored by Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and James Ferraro, this is a wild ride that skirts the line of experimental and narrative cinema.
GOOD LUCK (France, dir. Ben Russell)
Ben Russell’s latest documentary was shot in two very different parts of the world, depicting the lives of people who do similar work. In Serbia, Russell follows a crew deep underground in a vast mine that has swallowed a large part of the city it neighbors. An opening segment features a local resident explaining that the house where he grew up and its streets are all “in the pit,” disappeared due to the necessities of industry. Russell takes the viewer along with the workers on a very long elevator ride and watches patiently as they work, then asks them questions on their break and punctuates each segment with a long silent take of one of the workers staring directly into the camera. The second half of the film takes place at a surface mining operation in Suriname, a world away from the dark caverns of the Serbian mine. Russell’s approach is hypnotic and compelling, and GOOD LUCK doesn’t at all feel like its two and a half hour running time. It’s a fascinating documentary and some of Russell’s best work yet.
ALIPATO: THE VERY BRIEF LIFE OF AN EMBER (Philippines, dir. Khavn)
Khavn’s previous feature RUINED HEART played CUFF a few years ago, a “silent film” with no dialogue shot by Christopher Doyle and featuring a constant soundtrack telling (as its subtitle described) ANOTHER LOVESTORY BETWEEN A CRIMINAL & A WHORE. Appropriately, his return to CUFF is a completely different beast: ALIPATO starts off at 11 and never lets up on the gas for its first half. Taking place in “Mondomanila” in the year 2025, the first chapter follows a vicious street gang consisting mostly of 10-year-old boys (along with a toddler girl, a slightly older teen, and a dwarf of indeterminate age) as they terrorize the streets. They steal and murder indiscriminately, but when one of their own is killed in a simulated slow-motion police shootout–an ingenious bit of staging and camera choreography–the gang decides to go big and rob the Central Bank. The film’s second half takes up 28 years later when the gang’s boss is released from prison, but its more familiar structure of the gang members being knocked off one by one lacks the sheer audacity of the first half. Khavn’s manic visual inventiveness remains on display throughout, offering up some imagery that is repulsive and gorgeous in equal measure.
CRAIGSLIST ALLSTARS (Netherlands, dir. Samira Elagoz)
Performance artist Samira Elagoz posted an advertisement on Craigslist looking for men in order to document their first meetings. Her encounters range from awkward interviews (a plumber mostly tells her the story of his recent divorce) to seemingly days-long sexual trysts both sweet and playful and vaguely threatening. Each of the men she meets displays some level of loneliness, and each expresses it in their own way; by inserting herself into the document, Elagoz becomes both investigator and participant in their lives. Some of these encounters keep her entirely on the outside, such as a man explaining how to get the ideal consistency of semen who barely lets her get in a word. Others almost entirely cede the spotlight to her, and these are the most interesting vignettes thanks to the obviously real connection they establish in the short time they spend together. It’s frequently uncomfortable and more than a little sad, but CRAIGSLIST ALLSTARS is a deeply fascinating piece of work from a fearless artist.
FUTURE LANGUAGE: THE DIMENSIONS OF VON LMO (USA, dir. Lori Felker)
Von LMO first appeared in the 1970s as the frontman for a proto-No Wave group inspired by his alleged interactions with aliens and other inter dimensional beings. After a huge show at New York’s Palladium, Von LMO disappeared for over a decade, time he claims he spent in space helping iron out an environmental problem on his home planet. Subsequent trips to space have been described by others who know him as stints in jail or other similar situations in which one drops out of society, but Von LMO has been active again for several years. Documentary filmmaker Lori Felker set out to tell the definitive Von LMO story, a task numerous others had attempted and failed over the man’s lengthy career. Thanks to an inexplicable affinity–which Von LMO attributes to Felker being a part-alien hybrid like himself–and sheer tenacity, she succeeded. Von LMO himself is a sometimes frustrating subject, dodging questions with lengthy absurd asides only to reveal some disturbing truth seemingly unprompted. In this way, FUTURE LANGUAGE is as much the story of Felker wrestling with her feelings regarding her subject as she learns more about him as it is about the man himself. In a world where it seems like everyone is having to do the same when some awful revelation is made about popular artists, the documentary gains an unexpected weight. Even if the viewer is unaware of Von LMO’s music (which seems likely!), this is an engaging and interesting look at a complicated figure who inspires complicated responses, and that’s about the highest possible recommendation one can give such a documentary.
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Tags: Alipato, Ben Russell, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Christopher Doyle, Craigslist Allstars, CUFF, Daniel Lopatin, documentary, Dream Journal, Future Language, Good Luck, Grace Victoria Cox, Hairspray, Industrial Accident, James Ferraro, john waters, Jon Moritsugu, Jon Rafman, Julia Nash, Khavn De La Cruz, Lori Felker, Michael Curtis Johnson, Mod Fuck Explosion, Oneohtrix Point Never, Ruined Heart, Samira Elagoz, Savage Youth, Von LMO, Wax Trax